Beedie researchers examine technology’s impact on blue-collar workers

Feb 13, 2014
Jan Kietzmann

Beedie School of Business Assistant Professor Jan Kietzmann shadowed a team of security guards to determine how the introduction of mobile communications technology changed their work practices.

New research from the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University indicates that the addition of simple communications technology is revolutionizing the way blue-collar workers perform their roles – often in unexpected ways.

The research looks at how blue-collar workers use technology to share knowledge and collaborate on the go. It reveals that a relatively small introduction of technology, such as mobile phones, can result in a significant impact on the way work is carried out.

The study, “Mobility at work: A typology of mobile communities of practice and contextual ambidexterity”, was written by Jan Kietzmann, Leyland Pitt and Kirk Plangger of the Beedie School of Business, Kerstin Heilgenberg from SFU’s Faculty of Education, Ben Eaton of the University of Oslo’s Department of Informatics, and Pierre Berthon from Bentley University’s McCallum Graduate School of Management. It was published in the December 2013 issue of The Journal of Strategic Information Systems.

In order to determine how the workers are utilizing mobile technology, the researchers introduced the framework of mobile communities of practice (MCOPs) as a lens with which to examine the different ways the workers are using the technology to self-organize.

MCOPs are groups of people bound together by a shared practice, though not necessarily in the same line of work. For example, a security truck driver and a pizza deliveryman would be in the same community of practice, sharing information on navigating the city, such as traffic jams and speed traps.

The researchers undertook three case studies, with Kietzmann shadowing three different groups of workers: garbage truck drivers, mobile IT installers, and security guards. In each case study, the researchers discovered that the workers were forming mini communities and using the technology to interact with them.

“These blue collar workers, whether they were garbage truck drivers or security guards, were not what you would consider traditional knowledge workers,” says Kietzmann. “By giving them these pieces of technology, they became highly sophisticated managers of their own work – more effective at managing their every day tasks than their own managers were.”

The researchers were able to identify four distinct typologies of MCOPs: anarchic, bureaucratic, adhocratic, and idiosyncratic. While the idiosyncratic category is rare, in that the workers do not care about either their own personal gains, or that of the organizations, the other three typologies demonstrate workers using technology in the MCOPs to increase their efficiency.

When shadowing the garbage truck drivers, Kietzmann quickly established that they were using their phones to call other drivers – including those working for rival companies – and using their communications technology to swap routes, allowing each of them to finish the day earlier than had they stuck to their assigned route. In doing so, the workers displayed high levels of innovation and entrepreneurship, and were successful in creating new opportunities for themselves.

Rather than doing this for the benefit of the organization, however, the drivers did not follow any organizational goals, and indeed, broke many of the rules in the process. Instead, they used the increased efficiency for their own gain – heading to the pub at the end of each day – therefore falling into the anarchic typology.

The security guards on the other hand, followed orders more closely, only using the technology to communicate with workers with shared practices, but not executing a high level of creativity or individual discretion. While this bureaucratic typology did result in improved performance, the results were not as beneficial as they could have been.

The IT workers, meanwhile, used the technology to bend, and in some cases break the rules, but did so for the benefit of the organization in order to achieve the goals set for them, thereby falling under the adhocratic typology.

While there is a great degree of reciprocity in adhocratic MCOPs – with community members expected to stop their own paid work in order to help with the problems of others when requested – the benefits of doing so outweigh the disadvantages of not continuing to work. Community work pays forward, meaning in the future, the supportive worker will be able to rely on others to help solve a problem he himself cannot solve alone.

Although the MCOPs the researchers studied are currently not using the technology in ways that the management intended, there are benefits to the organization in every example. The researchers suggest that organizations should seek to mitigate the risks of such practices and exploit the opportunities. They suggest organizations should first identify and create MCOPs, before moving on to managing and supporting them.

“If organizations turn a blind eye, we might find that all MCOPs will lean towards anarchic, with mobile workers creating personal gains for themselves rather than for something of value to the company,” says Kietzmann. “What organizations want to achieve is a high degree of contextual ambidexterity, with high degrees of individual discretion that are aligned to the organizational goals.”

The researchers caution that although small improvements in communications technology available to workers result in overall improved performance, increasing the amount and quality of technology would not necessarily bring even greater results.

“When managing and supporting these MCOPs, small investments can lead to tremendous returns – these aren’t supercomputers they have been given, they are just mobile phones,” says Plangger. “But on the flip side, if you invest too much, you will stifle the cooperative potential. With significant investment comes an expectation of control, and that is not how these communities operate.”

This story was first published in the January 2014 edition of Ideas@Beedie magazine, the Beedie School of Business’ digital magazine showcasing the business school’s academic research, industry impact and engagement with the community. To view the full magazine or download the iPad and Android apps, visit http://beedie.sfu.ca/ideas

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